When I heard that Dante's Inferno will be full of quick-time events (QTE), I sighed in disappointment. I later made a comment that QTE are often fake participation. I'll explain what I meant by that.
I'm not completely dismissing QTE as a viable game feature. How could I? One of the industry's most popular game series, God of War, has thrived on them. I've never played God of War, since I never owned a Sony console (due to limited money -- not that I've never wanted one). I can't comment on that game. I've only experienced QTE in other games, and those experiences haven't been fun.
What I object to isn't the basic idea of simple actions that facilitate a cinematic experience, like climbing a gigantic monster. What I object to is purely reactive button-mashing... a complete disconnect between what the player is doing and what is happening on screen.
There's a great scene in one of my favorite movies, Fierce Creatures, where a zoo's manager leads his zookeepers to a large cage with a panda sitting amid the bamboo. The zookeepers coo and smile... until they realize it's an animatronic panda! It's in a cage for viewing as if it were a real animal, but it's really just a robot. The ensuing conversation goes something like this:
Staff: "You can't put an animatronic animal in a zoo!"
Manager: "Why not? It gave you a thrill."
Staff: "But it's not a real thrill, is it? It's artificial!"
Manager: "Having pandas in England is artificial."
The zoo manager clearly has a good point. We could fill our zoos with fake-but-convincing robots and there would still be a thrill to be had by audiences. So why don't we? First, because we value truth, and people shouldn't be intentionally fooled unless they want to be (like with magic shows). And second, because real animals can offer a grander, better experience.
Quick-time events, like any other design concept, can take many forms. The QTE that I've seen is basically like that robotic panda in the zoo. By making the player react to a series of random button requests ("Press X! Press Y! Press X!") to unlock parts of a scripted animation, these games are faking participation, in a sense. The player's button combos have no real relationship to the character's actions. Players are just jumping through hoops.
In such games, participation isn't really a significant source of enjoyment. The player's thrill isn't from the whack-a-mole action... it's from whatever epic event that action unlocks. Seeing my character climb on the back of a huge beast and stab it in the eye -- that's awesome. But while I'm concentrating on reacting to random button prompts, I'm not watching the monster. The experience is schizophrenic. The player is distanced from the action, rather than given opportunities for true engagement.
So how would I do it? What's a better way?
One example of making quick-time events truly participatory would be to mimic Assassin's Creed's acrobatic system and place the grapple points on live enemies, rather than on structures. In Assassin's Creed, every building has been strategically covered by the designers with edges and objects which the player's character can grab onto. If monsters and such were designed with grappling points like this, then gameplay could be designed to let players climb them in a dynamic, intuitive, and player-directed way.
That sort of use of QTE means each player can have a unique and personal experience based on individual decisions and circumstances.
One player might go up the giant's arm, another up the back, another latching onto its weapon or facial horn when it attacks, etc. The enemies could be capable of shaking the player off, grabbing him, or crushing him against a wall... thereby making the player's anticipation of these actions and scenarios part of the gameplay.
For example, the player's character might climb on a monster's back. The monster responds by trying to slam its back against some rocks. The player sees this coming and quickly shifts the monster's head or arm. He stabs the monster in the neck. The monster howls in pain and reaches to grab the player, but the player shifts again to the monster's back and stabs it again there.
The game might even get really crazy and allow another, smaller monster to see the player on the giant's back and climb onto the giant's back as well, trying to bite the player.
Anyway, that's just one way quick-time events could be implemented that would allow players to truly participate in the events and never lose focus on the real experience: the enemies and setting. Hopefully, Dante's Inferno will surprise me with something like that.